Saturday, March 21, 2015

Get On Up: Shot in the Arm

Get On Up, the James Brown biopic, is full of life, most of it supplied by Chadwick Boseman, the remarkable actor and dancer who gets down Brown’s startlingly kinetic presence. Boseman didn’t make much of an impression as Jackie Robinson in the bland 42, but he’s mesmerizing as the charismatic and tyrannical Godfather of Soul. Brown’s sense of himself as a one-man band whose fellow musicians – and wives - he sees as no more than necessary echoes of his presence alienates everyone around him, even, eventually, his best friend and loyal colleague Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who sticks around longer than anyone else. But his musical inventiveness is as outsize as his personality. The musical numbers, directed with a great deal of skill by Tate Taylor, do exactly what they need to do: they replicate the excitement of seeing James Brown.

In the big-studio days, musical bios were about classical or show composers or musical-theatre personalities, and they were highly fictionalized. (The best of them were Michael Curtiz’s 1942 Yankee Doodle Dandy, with Jimmy Cagney as George M. Cohan, and William Wyler’s 1968 Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, which was based on a successful Broadway show and came out when the old studio system was taking its last breaths.) Eventually – inevitably – Hollywood turned to pop-music performers, beginning with The Buddy Holly Story (starring Gary Busey) in 1978, and their stories boasted a grittiness that was largely missing from the earlier entries in this genre. And though they’re often – not always – melodramas, many of them have been memorable, like What’s Love Got to Do with It with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner, Ray with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Sweet Dreams with Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline, and Walk the Line with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, as well as the faux bios The Rose (Bette Midler as a character modeled on Janis Joplin) and Dreamgirls (a film à clef about the Supremes, with Béyoncé Knowles standing in for Diana Ross). Old-school musical bios relied on the gifts of the stars; though both Yankee Doodle Dandy and Funny Girl were lushly directed by pros, without Cagney and Streisand the stories of these stage stars from the early decades of the twentieth century wouldn’t have been likely to hold an audience. But pop bios borrow the flash and eruptiveness of the original music. The movies I’ve listed above aren’t equally good; for my money, Sweet Dreams (with its marvelous Bob Getchell screenplay) and Walk the Line and The Rose tower above the others. But the combination of the music and the performers gives them a shared vibrancy and immediacy.

Chadwick Boseman and Dan Ackroyd in Get on Up

It’s good that Get On Up embodies these qualities because, aside from the musical episodes, as a piece of filmmaking it’s an unholy mess. The English playwright Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry Butterworth wrote the script, though reportedly Taylor tinkered with the structure, so I’m not sure where to lay the blame, but the shape of the thing is utterly baffling. It begins in Atlanta in 1988, where a stoned Brown, armed with a rifle, disrupts an insurance powwow that’s hired out his Man’s World Enterprises conference center because one of the attendees has used his private bathroom. I guess the point is to show how unhinged Brown has become – though if the reason is drugs, the movie provides no flashback to set up his dependency on them – but who the hell would want to open a picture about James Brown this way? The frame is a convention of bios (both musical and straight), but they generally begin with some significant moment that allows the filmmakers – and often the protagonist – to reflect on the distance he or she has come since starting out, like Fanny Brice sitting in the theatre where she’s about to perform in The Ziegfeld Follies on the night her gambler husband comes out of prison, or Johnny Cash about to play to an audience of inmates at Folsom Prison. Get On Up isn’t about how Brown came apart; it’s about how his image of himself got between him and almost everyone else around him. (The exception seems to have been his manager Ben Bart, played with considerable charm by Dan Aykroyd, though their relationship – and the ability of a white Jew to retain Brown’s confidence – is insufficiently developed.) Or maybe it’s supposed to be about how Brown’s learning to survive as a boy abandoned by his parents and raised in a brothel by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) derives from his determination to see himself as a star, though the movie only throws in that idea toward the end of the picture.

The scrambled chronology doesn’t appear to have been thought through in terms of either the movie’s themes or even Brown’s character; as far as we can tell, the order of scenes was picked out of a hat. There are two flashbacks to James and his mother Susie (Viola Davis), the first of which hints at her troubled but sexually potent relationship with James’s father Joe (Lennie James); in the second she walks out on them both, though then she changes her mind and tries to take James with her and Joe gets the boy back at gunpoint. This sequence doesn’t make any sense, but Davis is astounding anyway, diving into the contradictions of a character whose motivations still seem to be in the screenwriters’ heads. Later in the picture, when Brown is performing at the Apollo in 1962, Susie comes backstage and Brown remembers the last time he saw her, when he was still a boy, on the arm of a soldier; he ran after her, calling to her, but she refused to acknowledge him. Naturally we expect some follow-through in his treatment of her when she suddenly appears in his dressing room, but we have to wait a long time to get it; instead of returning to 1962, the film catapults ahead to 1965. We see very little of Brown’s first wife, Velma (Jacinte Blankenship), a little more of his second, DeeDee (Jill Scott) – though a scene in which he hauls off and knocks her down with no apparent provocation comes out of the blue. Taylor underscores the arrival of sexy, beautiful Yvonne Fair (Tika Sumpter) when she joins the band as a back-up singer, so we assume she’s going to be important, but we barely see her again (and she has no other dramatic scenes). Poor Aunjanue Ellis slips in and out of the narrative as Vicki Anderson, who winds up marrying Byrd though, it’s hinted, she might have wound up with Brown. Brown’s son Teddy is barely a character at all, though the somewhat mysterious allusions to his death (in 1973, in a car crash) suggest that he’s important – as of course he must have been – so you have to imagine a hunk of the story was cut out of the final print.

Viola Davis in Get on Up

We don’t even learn how Brown forged his unique style or how those comic-idolatrous bits he was so famous for (where he pretended to collapse on the stage and so on) got into his repertoire. And though the omissions are bizarre, some of the inclusions are more so, like a scene with Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey as tourists who get upset when they find out that these black musicians are staying at the same motel and dance mockingly to their music. Every time the movie tries to deal with race it shoots itself in the foot. In one of the childhood sequences, James and some other black kids box each other blindfolded for the entertainment of white folks; I don’t know if anything like this really happened to Brown, but the scene, which is grossly overdirected (a shot of James bleeding from the lip goes on and on), feels like an import from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. And every now and then there’s a Brechtian interlude where James (or one of his younger selves, who are played by Jamarion and Jordan Scott) talks directly to the camera.

Still, a number of the actors hold your attention. Certainly Boseman and Davis (who transcends her role here just as she transcended Tate Taylor’s last movie, The Help, which was a true atrocity) and Aykroyd, but also Phyllis Montana LeBlanc (Wendell Pierce’s wife on the TV series Treme) as Byrd’s mother, who gives James a home when he’s a seventeen-year-old kid who landed in jail for stealing a suit. Brandon Smith has a grand time playing the young, campy, self-adoring Little Richard; it’s a one-scene part, but the encounter of these two R&B icons (at the hash joint where Richard is working) bubbles over. Nelsan Ellis is impressive as Bobby Byrd, both in the scenes where he puts up with his friend’s bullshit and the one where, at long last, he’s decided he’s had enough. These performers and the juiced-up energy of the music and the dancing make Get On Up far more enjoyable than it has any right to be.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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